Opinion by David Ignatius
Not to be alarmist, but we should recognize that the United States will be in the danger zone until the formal certification of Joe Biden’s election victory on Jan. 6, because potential domestic and foreign turmoil could give President Trump an excuse to cling to power.
This threat, while unlikely to materialize, is concerning senior officials, including Republicans who have supported Trump in the past but believe he is now threatening to overstep the constitutional limits on his power. They described a multifaceted campaign by die-hard Trump supporters to use disruptions at home and perhaps threats abroad to advance his interests.
The big showdown is the Jan. 6 gathering of both houses of Congress to formally count the electoral college vote taken on Dec. 14, which Biden won 306 to 232. The certification should be a pro forma event, but a desperate Trump is demanding that House and Senate Republicans challenge the count and block this final, binding affirmation of Biden’s victory before Inauguration Day.
Trump’s last-ditch campaign will almost certainly fail in Congress. The greater danger is on the streets, where pro-Trump forces are already threatening chaos. A pro-Trump group called “Women for America First” has requested a permit for a Jan. 6 rally in Washington, and Trump is already beating the drum: “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!”
Government officials fear that if violence spreads, Trump could invoke the Insurrection Act to mobilize the military. Then Trump might use “military capabilities” to rerun the Nov. 3 election in swing states, as suggested by Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser. Trump “could take military capabilities and he could place them in those states and basically rerun an election,” Flynn told Newsmax in a Dec. 17 interview.
The Pentagon would be the locus of any such action, and some unusual recent moves suggest pro-Trump officials might be mobilizing to secure levers of power. Kash Patel, chief of staff to acting defense secretary Christopher C. Miller, returned home “abruptly” from an Asia trip in early December, according to Fox News correspondent Jennifer Griffin. Patel didn’t explain, but in mid-December Trump discussed with colleagues the possibility that Patel might replace Christopher A. Wray as FBI director, one official said. Wray remains in his job.
Another strange Pentagon machination was the proposal Miller floated in mid-December to separate the code-breaking National Security Agency from U.S. Cyber Command, which are both currently headed by Gen. Paul Nakasone. That proposal collapsed because of bipartisan congressional opposition.
But why did Trump loyalists suggest the NSA-Cyber Command split in the first place? Some officials speculate that the White House may have planned to install a new NSA chief, perhaps Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the young conservative recently installed to oversee Pentagon intelligence activities.
With firm control of the NSA and the FBI, the Trump team might then disclose highly sensitive information about the origins of the 2016 Trump Russia investigation. Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe tried to release this sensitive intelligence before the election, despite protests from intelligence chiefs that it would severely damage U.S. national security. Trump retreated under pressure from then-Attorney General William P. Barr, among others.
Trump’s final weeks in office will also be a tinder box because of the danger of turmoil abroad. Iranian-backed militias fired more than 20 rockets last Sunday at the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad, with around nine hitting the compound but inflicting no American casualties. The United States sent intense, high-level messages to Tehran, public and private, warning against any further provocation. The toughest was a Dec. 23 tweet from Trump warning: “If one American is killed, I will hold Iran responsible. Think it over.” State Department and Pentagon officials say Trump’s retaliatory threat is real.
Another potential flash point is just a week away. Jan. 3 marks the first anniversary of the U.S. targeted killing of Quds Force commander Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani and Iraq militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Any new violence could ignite a quick cycle of escalation that could bring direct conflict between the United States and Iran during Trump’s final weeks in office.
The heroes in preserving the United States’ hopes of a stable democratic transition, perhaps ironically, have been some courageous, principled Republicans: judges in state and federal courts, including Supreme Court justices nominated by Trump; secretaries of state and other election monitors; a disappointingly small handful of GOP senators and members of Congress, and even a few members of Trump’s inner circle like White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, who is said to have resisted some of Trump’s disruptive plans. They have all stood up in different ways for the rule of law.
Trump won’t succeed in subverting the Constitution, but he can do enormous damage over the next weeks. Before Jan. 6, a delegation of senior Republicans should visit him at the White House and insist, emphatically: Biden has won. This must stop.